The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1983, Volume 29, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Freelance writer and ethnohistorian

Images from the article

In early October, 1975, a photograph in a San Diego History Center exhibit at the Junípero Serra Museum took on a new meaning and led to a wonderful discovery. As two visitors gazed at the local Native American display, a young woman was surprised to see a large photograph of her grandmother. With her friend accompanying her into the San Diego History Center’s Library, the young woman, Jackie, inquired about the photograph. Jackie told Librarian Sylvia Arden that the woman in the photograph was her grandmother and that her father, Tom Lucas, a Kwaaymii Indian, would be very interested in seeing it.

The cordiality and interest shown by Sylvia Arden convinced Jackie that she should bring her father back to the museum to see the photograph of his mother and to talk further. Jackie knew well her father’s lifelong interest in, and dedication to, preserving his people’s history.

Not long afterward, Tom Lucas walked into the cramped confines of the Historical Society’s Library. Carrying a scrapbook of historic photographs and possessing a knowledge of the past as known by few individuals, Mr. Lucas offered to share his photographs, his memories and himself.

Accompanied by his daughter Jackie, Tom Lucas allowed Sylvia Arden and Society Curator Michael Carman to examine his photographic collection while conducting an informal oral interview. Arden and Carman were quick to realize that in Tom Lucas they had a living link with the past, a past that is ever so gradually emerging and developing and affording us a better understanding of the prehistoric and historic heritage of the first Californians.

Following the interview of October 15, 1975, Sylvia Arden contacted me and expressed an interest in a more detailed and anthropologically focused interview with Tom Lucas. Not only was I delighted at the chance to conduct such an interview, I was complimented. Mr. Lucas agreed to an interview at his home in Pacific Beach on November 4, 1975 and to a later informal talk and tour of his ranch in the Laguna Mountains. The following text is the transcription of the November 4 taping. With the exception of minor editing for clarity of thought and grammatical errors (usually mine) the transcription and the tape are near duplicates.

The luxury of the passage of time, more than seven years, has allowed me to increase my knowledge of local native American history, to pursue some time-consuming avenues of research relevant to the Lucas narrative and to provide footnotes to several of his statements. It is hoped that these notes will not distract the reader from a story that could stand on its own merits. The notes are intended to amplify and enhance and provide the reader with sources of additional information about Tom Lucas and the Kumeyaay culture.

A note on synonymy may help clear up what could be a confusing babel of similar words and apparent inconsistencies in native names and English spelling of native terms. Tom Lucas is a member of the large and widely distributed Yuman-speaking language group. He shares a common language form with the Quechan of the Colorado River, the upstream Mojave and the distant Pima of Arizona. Locally, the Yuman-speaking peoples have been known by several names depending on contemporary thought, orthography and whether or not one is describing a linguistic group or a cultural group.1

In brief, linguists, and to a lesser degree historians, have described two major subdivisions within the overall Yuman-speaking groups of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Recent works have labelled those groups north of the San Diego River as Tipai and those south and into Baja California as Ipai.2In general these terms replace, and may be synonymous with, the old anthropological catchall Northern Diegueño and Southern Diegueño respectively. While Ipai and Tipai do avoid using the term Diegueño, a term coined by Spaniards for those natives of the San Diego Mission area, not all scholars are in agreement as to their correctness.

Recently several archaeologists have reverted to Albert Schroeder’s concept of the Hakatayan for the prehistoric and possibly Yuman-speaking peoples of southern San Diego County.3 Thus, the Tipai (Northern Diegueño) and Ipai (Southern Diegueño) are archaeologically subsumed within the term Hakatayan. Further confusing the issue, several local reservation groups and individuals have formed a cultural and political group called Kumeyaay Inc. These people and several anthropologists have urged that the term Kumeyaay be used rather than Southern Diegueño.

Within the Kumeyaay / Ipai / Southern Diegueño group, there are, and have been for hundreds of years, numerous bands, clans and familial groupings. One such group is the Kwaaymii, a family or sub-band that lived in the Sunrise Highway area of the Laguna Mountains in east San Diego County. As he describes himself, Tom Lucas is the last of the Kwaaymii and it is with this unique man that we can share a glimpse of the past. Our interview with Tom Lucas is certainly not the first and it may well not be the last. Unfortunately for researchers and scholars, many of the interviews and conversations with Tom Lucas have gone unpublished. A notable exception to this is Lora L. Cline’s The Kwaaymii: Reflections on a Lost Culture.

I have several questions that the people at the Historical Society wanted me to ask you. I think some of them you have already talked to them about before. One of them was what year was your mother born in, Maria Alto?

That’s impossible to tell because we didn’t have no record or anything at all. When she died in about 1924 we just figured she was pretty well up in her 90s. She was grown-up girl because she remembered the Butterfield Stages coming through—which was in the 1860s-very well and she recollected some of the mines that were in operation down in the desert which are longgone.

Was she born right in the Cuyamaca Mountains there?

She was born around the Laguna Mountains in what they called Kumeyaay Reservation which became later known as Laguna Reservation and has been known as Laguna. That was just a geographical name given by the government to give an official designation is what it is and soon.4

Is the land that you own now right in the same place?

[DAUGHTER: It’s the same one.]


And where was your father born? In the same area?

My father was born up north somewhere in the Cahuilla [territory]. He was a Cahuilla Indian and he and my mother met when she was working for some people in San Bernardino. They got married and then moved out on to Laguna and they worked that ranch for a long time. Then he had to go back home to take care of his interest on the Cahuilla Reservation.

What kind of work did she do in San Bernardino, your mother?

Mostly domestic. She used to hire out for different ranchers and some of those people. After they went away and the ranches sold out they took her with them. one [family] took her with them to San Bernardino for awhile. Then she came back. And then she worked for somebody else I believe in Santa Barbara. So for an Indian of her age she has been around quite a bit.

Do you know where your grandparents were born? Your mother’s parents? Were they born right in the same area?

Yes, but my father never did come back. He did come back just for a visit, but he never did come back to settle down as a rancher or anything. And he died also.

I had a question—in a couple of the pictures it showed your grandmother with pottery and your mother with pottery and baskets. We were curious  where did they get the clay for the pottery up in the Laguna area?

There were areas—one area in the Laguna flat’ s. That’s way over southeast of Laguna Meadows. That was all very rich,fine [clay]. And then there was also some on the northern part of Laguna Mountains. Those kinds of places are few and hard to find. Sometimes they would have too much rock and the rock would swell up and expand and oftentimes break the olla in the process of baking. So they went into it and sifted [it] very fine. One was a red clay and the other was a kind of gray but they all baked out about the same. They all turned out to be red color when it was finished. As time goes by and through usage they turn color from chocolate brown to dark red.5

Did they ever grind anything up and put it in with the clay, like sand or fine rock or anything like that?

No, they generally used a cactus juice. They take the cactus and sit that in water for overnight and they get the water and they mix it and it makes it kind of slow to dry and easy to work and it works in—the same thing as the lime work in the cement. The lime makes the cement very slow to settle and is more plastic and it works. It don’t give it any more strength, but it has given it time to settle slowly and dry slowly and it makes it a lot better,easier to work.

What did they use to fire them with? Did they make an underground kiln?

They’d dig a hole about 4 or 5 feet deep and they put a lot of barricade around it to make a windbreak. The object of that was to keep the wind away from it. And they’d pick a good day when there was no wind and the nights were even temperature. They put a lot of bark—real dry bark -around it but no sticks so that it would burn even.

What kind of bark was it—oak bark or . . .?

All of the potteries are covered up good and thick—probably 4 to 6 inches of bark—and then they set a fire on top and then it burns slowly all night long. Sometimes in the evening it burns all night—or sometimes in the morning, it depends—and they don’t disturb that. After that’s all burned down it leaves the ashes—the ashes sort of cover up the ollas and the potteries so no air gets to them and it dries very slowly—not dries—no, it cools off. And, usually, 1 day or maybe 2 days afterwards, they dig that out and that’s the way it is because it can’t be exposed from hot to cold at all.

[DAUGHTER: What kind of bark was it, Daddy?]

Oak. Generally oak is the best and they hardly ever used pine at all, because pine has a tendency to make an awful lot of smoke. It don’t burn good.

What did they make their basket out of? I saw pine needles.

There are several things. The main thing that’s durable is made out of what they call basket oak and they also call it the witch hazel bush. They take the new sprouts and about every year they burn off those places so they have a brand new sprout the following year. They save them and they split them open and shred it and they get that string. It works out anywhere from a foot to 18 inches long, the strings. Then they coil that up and they put it away and when they get ready to use it why they put it in hot water and it becomes soft, pliable and a great deal on the order of the plastic strings they use for arts and crafts these days. It’s worked out to that same thickness that same thickness that string is made out of.6

Did they dye them with anything?

Some of them are dyed—they are dyed ofttimes from different spring seepages. Some from lead oxide. That real orange one over there is made out of a weed that grows in the marshes in the low lands in the deserts. They have a very deep root and they usually have about 8 inches of orangecolored root and they save that and that’s permanent. It will never fade or never dry or nothing.

Did they use pine needles too? Did your mother or grandmother ever use pine needles for baskets?

They have—they use some. They use quite a bit of pine needles. The most durable and the best is what they call the deer grass [Epicampes rigens californica]. They grow up on the mountain slopes in secluded places. They grow quite tall—2 or 3 feet tall and straight and a very even texture and they use that. It will bend—it will bend way over to a radius of about 3 inches without ever making a break, so they use that an awful lot. But the beginning of a basket is very small. It starts out about a half inch or 1 inch all the way until they get to three. Well they use some kind of fiber or a grass fiber or oak fiber—the cambiums from the oak trees or pine so it’s easy to bend over and it works same as a rag. And then from there on they go with the deer grass.

What did they use for needles or awls to wind it in?

Most of them used bone—like chicken bone, but they didn’t have chicken in them days, but you take any large bird like duck or geese or any of that and they save all the bones. The legs have long shanks and break that and then they work that over until it gets pretty fine and by careful usage they last a long time.

I have found some in caves and places. They are beautiful, beautiful needles.

They say in some places they use a stone, like quartz, that will break up easy, not long slivers, but it’s not very often done because it is fragile and breaks easy.

The one picture that you had—the first picture in your album is a house and says 1870 or 1880 it may have been built. What was it built of? They may have already asked you, but they wanted to get it on the tape. Was it made out of regular lumber from the local area?

It was out of logs that had been hewed down and got in shape and then the shakes and roof part were split by hand—not by hand. They didn’t have no saws or machines so it was done by a shake splitter. My grandfather took several tools for payment when he worked on, I believe it was the Box Spring Road. He also worked, in the early days, on the mines at Banner [when they] were in operation, and a lot of times he’d come home with tools instead of money. That’s how he built his house. And it lasted—it was pretty heavy material—and it lasted up until a very few years ago.

Were you born in that house?

Yes. Why I would say roughly that that house lasted about 80 years I would think. It was in the 1860s that he got his tools in the Butterfield days and the migration.

Did the Butterfield go pretty close to where you lived? I saw an old map and it looks pretty close.

Down below us was Mason Valley and the Indians used that for a winter home and they all moved down there. They moved everything—their horses and their food and stuff and they stayed for the winter and come back on the mountain—the high mountain range in the summer. of course, more game and more water and it was easier to plant and grow their vegetables, corn and stuff [in the Valley]. While the desert was warm it had no water.

Were there any old Indian villages near where you lived that you knew about?

Yes, there were several. Our place was the most further north. And south it was the Laguna Meadows there. That was abandoned quite early—quite early in the years. Then there was a place over there in the wooded hills. That was an almost ancient one but they still used it. That was used in conjunction with the Cuyapaipe Reservation for many a time, and then they all gradually went to the Cuyapaipe and that was all those other places that were abandoned, so there was a continuous change of old, old villages way way down.7

Do you know the name of the village at Laguna Meadows? The Indian name or old name?

Well, one of those places they called the Sh’quah—that means the mountain or anything that bristled with timber. Just looking at it from a distance all you see is just those pines. That showed up and they call it the Sh’quah. That was known for that area in there and that one mountain the wooded hills show up for a long distance almost anywhere.

Was there a village at Guatay?

Guatay the mountain there is not really the place. The Guatay is where Descanso is. It was in that big valley and there was a big house and there were hundreds and hundreds of people in the winter and summer the year round. That belongs more or less to both parties the Kumeyaays [also spelled Kumeyai, official name for Southern Diegueño Indians] and those people on the east, on the mountain. They all get together and that was generally known as the year-round home. As the time goes on they named that mountain close by Guatay. Then there’s a little village—a store they call that Guatay but that’s completely off. That’s about 3 miles away.

I read somewhere there might have been a village near Hulburd’s Grove. Is that still the same village coming from Descanso? Was that all one big area? Malcolm Rogers said there may have been a village there with big rock walls and enclosures and all that.

[DAUGHTER: Do you remember anything around Hulburd’s Grove? Any old Indian village?]

Well, not very much. However, there was supposed to have been a passageway because that creek goes right on up into Green Valley, and now I think they call that the Cuyamaca State Park. Up close to the State Park Ranger Station is a big new reservation there and from that reservation there was a trail and that trail comes right down and follows that course of water right through Hulburd’s Grove and into Descanso which of course was Guatay. So for years we used to find pictographs all along that canyon in there. And there was one cave in particular that was clear full of drawings—oh, different things—the sun and moon and things like that.

That was in Descanso or in the canyon going up?

In the canyon. But some of that was in that big flood of 1927. It kind of covered it up with sand pretty badly and I don’t know whether it still shows or not. In other words, it changed the course of the river and that good ground that we used to have for grazing of animals that was just all wiped away and [left] nothing but sand deposits.

That’s the Sweetwater River?

Yes, right on the course of the Sweetwater River—with Hulburd’s Grove—about a mile. It no doubt had been used quite extensively right in there. And close to Hulburd’s Grove, about 2 miles north, there’s kind of a little flat and that’s been a well-settled country for years. There’s still remains of it when I was last up there—broken pottery—but that’s been so long ago I don’t even recall the history of it.

We’re trying to do that as a project for the Historical Society to put in the villages and figure out where the people lived and where they moved and all that. But it’s very hard because every season it changed. People moved around a lot and when the white settlers came in the Indians had to move out and it’s really hard to track all of them down. Where did you go to school?

Descanso. Before I go any further, though, that Guatay—all that place like Descanso, those Indians there the last remaining, moved out of what they called the Los Conejos and that’s about 5 miles north of Grass Valley and there’s a lot of them and as I understood some of the other Indians that lived up around there the southern part of Laguna Mountains also drifted in. In fact, we knew of one family whose name was Lino. Well, in the early days we recalled the time when they lived up there and went up and down the Noble Canyon a lot in migration. What finally happened was that some of the Descanso people and the Laguna Mountains [people] and all that moved right on to a warmer climate where they won’t be disturbed like the Los Descanso—it means a resting place in Spanish—so when the immigrants start coming through why that’s the first place they hit and they’ll stay in there. But more or less, they got crowded out when people started homesteading. Very early they started homesteading those flat valleys, you know, like Pine Valley and Descanso Flats and the same way with the Cottonwood over at Buckman Springs. Those luscious valleys—those settlers came in there first because they don’t care about the mountains and canyons—and then they moved on.

Did you ever hear of any Indian villages or Indian towns near Cottonwood Creek or Buckman Springs?

It used to be quite a place, but I don’t know very much of any descendants.

Did you know any of the Indians that went down into Mexico to live instead of staying here? I read quite a bit about people going down there and then couldn’t get back. They went down there and became Mexican citizens and now they have trouble coming back to the United States. 

Oh, yes, there were a lot of them. Now you take all of that Jacumba Hot Springs— most all of them went on down into Mexico. I think some of the Aguerros moved over to Manzanita Reservation and I think some of the blood line still thrives in Murrietta. I think some of them are still living. Most of them in Jacumba. That was about the first good lush meadow they hit after coming out of the Mira canyon, you know, by pack trains or whatever and that’s a good valley and good water. Well, it wasn’t long before that was homesteaded and became ranches. That was all taken over so they moved. There was nothing else for them in the North, but there was something for them in Mexico. So they went there. But quite a few of them came back later on when they set aside Campo Reservation in 1910. Quite a few of them settled in Campo because they bought that land and set it aside so some of those Indians would have a place to go. Because it just got to a point where there wasn’t anyplace left.8

Did you ever hear from your mother or anybody about the big battle in McCain Valley? A skirmish or a fight between the McCain family and some Indians in the 1880s? They tried to push the Indians out or something. I was reading about it in the newspaper. Did you ever hear that story?

Yes, there was, but it wasn’t really in McCain Valley. I think the biggest one was Campo or Jacumba because I remember there was one old woman that took part in that. Well, she wasn’t old then at the time she took part in it.She said a lot of the other people started leaving and left the women in the house. She says, “Well, there’s only one way of doing it. They’re going to die anyway. ” So she took her rifle and she went out and by golly she done her marksmanship pretty good and scared everybody out that was left.9I’ve heard of that a lot of times. I forgot what her name was now. McCain Valley was changed over a lot of times so I think the only ones left now are the Aguerros up there on the Manzanita Reservation. Then McCain has a little homestead up in there and then that big McCain Valley, I don’t know whatever became of that.

In one of the things I read—your family has been in the newspaper a lot, the Lucases and the Altos—I read an article in the newspaper that said your mother was of the N-A-G-I-T-O Nagito Tribe, is that right? I had never seen that word before.

It must have been the Diegueño. There was no such word as Nagito. Diegueño means, well—collectively meaning the San Diegans—all those who have been christened or indoctrinated by the missionaries in the early days in the San Diego area. Just like Santa Barbara area or San [Juan] Capistrano. This is nothing more than referring to the Diegueños, the San Diegans, so actually it’s a Spanish name but there’s no pinpoint name on it at all.

Did the Indians have different names for the Indians of this area? In other words, the Kumiai (Kumeyaay).

That means the west—those along the coast. The lower area. There’s a high and a low. And then of course up in the mountains they are referred to as the Nankapa. That means men of the east. They are just referring to anyone living in the mountains or the desert, but as time goes on that got changed around too, and they called it Inkapa. There’s no Inkapa. “Inka” means easterly and “kapa” means men—either m-e-n or m-a-n, one or the other. Same as a southerner or something like that.

The other day you told me that you had seen the last of the ceremony—I think the mourning ceremony of the images—the death images.

Oh, yes, that was in 1908. I happen to know exactly because I have some photographs taken by Ed Davis and he gave it to us for our home, you know, and it had a date on it August 1908.10 And also one of our old Indian neighbors, Juan Baptiste, he had a name written overhead on his fireplace, carved in wood. So I saved that piece of lumber after they were dead and gone and I don’t know but someone stole it and burned it up. I remember going over there when I was pretty small but I still remember and what they do—all those people when they have relatives that die, they go and they donate and contribute clothing, food and everything and they help build these big ramadas they call them—these sheltered places. Oh, the Indians used to come all around there and then they’d make these images out of straws. They’d tie them up just like you would a scarecrow only a lot better done. They were so precise and they’d try to get just as true an image as they can and the face was painted on and then the buckskin filled with sand or mud. And then it’s painted and worked over and the clothing—they clothe them in the modern clothes or whatever they can. When that was all done they had an all-night song that was sung of the creation and how the earth was made and what was done and what becomes of the people. Nobody dies, he simply leaves his body and is gone again. But it’s nobody’s privilege to know or nobody’s privilege to find out where they go. Well, there are songs to that effect and they carry that on. My grandmother was very well known and noted for her chants, so that’s how come I happened to go down in there. They took me with them. At nighttime they had a big campfire or bonfire. People would pick those images up and go around. They were gorgeously dressed in different colors and some of them had markings on the face and some of them had different decorations. All the way around and then stop and then they go again and then they stop again until just about morning. Then they go and put them all down in a big pit and then they throw their brush and everything in there and then they set that afire and that smoke and all that is supposed to go on and take with them everything they had ever done here. They were all supposed to go to a new complete life and forget all their ties— everything—nothing to bring them back, because, they say, you have no business trying to call a person’s spirit back, just to help you or something, because that isn’t right. 

Was this done 1 year after the death or –

Yes, so they send them away like that. And when day breaks, everything in that big concession that was brought there—like pinyon nuts and wheat and corn and potatoes in sacks (they used to do a lot of farming)—[were given to] the visitors that come there that have no relation whatsoever to them—from Santa Isabel, Mesa Grande and from Mexico and some as far as Yuma. They come here and they say you can have what you want—take it, it’s yours. And they take it and everything is parted that day. By evening not a soul is left and they burn down that concession. It’s made out of brush. Usually willow bush.

When you were growing up did Indians still burn the house of someone who died?

No, when they got to a point where they were building better houses they hardly ever done that. But they did do it once, I remember, in Cuyapaipe. There was one old man—we knew him pretty well, and when he passed away—but that was his request. All his possessions he said he wanted to have burned. He didn’t want nobody to come into his house. But he was a very ambitious sort of man. He cut the trees—the cedar trees that were around the Lagunas and he split that up into shakes and he made a real nice home. Very good and substantial, but he didn’t want no one else to use it. He said after he was gone he didn’t want nobody fighting over it. They had several children. He said one will come and want it and then another—so he said it has to go. So they burned that down, but previously they just made a house out of adobe with a thatched roof, just temporary, and they generally move anyway from year to year and when a person dies they burn it up with their belongings. They say that goes with it.

Could you tell me, when the Indians went out to gather the acorns during the acorn season, to harvest them, did the whole family go out or just the women and children or did the men take parttoo?

Usually, the women and men—well, men usually have other things. They are supposed to be the hunter or other things. But when they get it once all worked up that’s when the menfolks get into it. They do the heavy carrying. They have those old nets made out of mescal fiber. They look just like a regular fisherman’s net, identical to it, but they had ways how you could lace them up and put them right over your shoulder and down you go. You usually put a blanket around here and there so when they set it down in a grove they don’t break. But the men don’t actually do much gathering. Here’s a drawing by my daughter Sue. That’s on what they call the Cottonwood Trail that goes right down in Mason Valley down in here. It’s their winter home. And we were sitting there and I was telling her how the Indians used to pack their stuff and go right on down. The man in the real primitive time had to be alert and watch because rivals might come and take stuff away from them.

Your daughter did this picture?


That’s beautiful.

She made that picture. That’s just a photograph of it. She made several drawings and sold a lot of her desert pictures. But that one she won’t sell.She’s got her dad up there, and her home. 

What kind of sandals or moccasins did they wear? Like those over there?


What are those made out of ?

Those are made out of century plant fibers. They take and pound those right on out like that and they they weave them back and forth and then work them right through. They usually put something in between these so they can wear them without cutting them much. They use that and on the desert they last a long while, out in sand. When it gets to wearing bad, why they just retread ’em again. Those century plant fibers are pretty strong.

What do you call the acorn gruel when you make it into mush, sha-wee?

[DAUGHTER: It was one of their main staples and they were fairly healthy, too.]

This Saturday some old Indian friends of mine from Campo, they are going to come up there on the mountains up there at that place and they are going to gather acorns, all they can this year, and some of them are still making it. But they don’t make it the old way anymore, they just take it and put it in a mill or grinder and grind it up fine. The hardest part is in washing it. 

How do you do that? Do you have to use hot water or cold water?

Usually warm water. A basket or something like this. This kind of stuff. They don’t have them anymore either. But it’s a coarse basket and it goes kind of flat way out and they lay that about an inch thick all the way through and pour the water in there gradually and slow. Then it works on through and takes out all the tanic acid and after that water goes on through good and clear why then it’s pretty sweet. There’s no bitterness left in it.

 Did they make a bread also with it? 

Yes, and after that’s cooked they just set it down—set it aside and it kind of jells like it don’t stay like a mush at all. But in the old times they used something like that [pointing to a basket]. It’s good and wide, because the water will go through that. But in the later days now some of those that do the washing, I notice, they take some straw, good clean straw, and they form that up and then they put some cheesecloth on it and that works a lot better—better than a basket ever worked. Yes, something like that. If it has too much of this stuff they put some of that old fiber cloth over it.

Is that a basket that your mother made? [The interviewer was pointing out a finely woven basket.]

Yes, that’s an old-timer. I think my grandmother made that, I don’t know. [DAUGHTER: That was hanging up in the cabin for years.]

Yes, it had been up there for -. That kind of a straw just never deteriorates. [DAUGHTER: That must be over a hundred years old.]

Yes, that’s the one that was put away in a cave and they went and dug that out.

Your house is like a museum. You have better things than museums have. What was the olla there with two necks?

Oh, that’s for carrying things and picking it up easy. To transfer from here to there. Not only that but sometimes carrying long distances. They have athing to cover up and make it much easier than the kind with just one round thing. But for long-distance carrying they have something like that only smaller.

When you were growing up you said that Indians were going back and forth from summer villages to winter villages. Were there a lot of Indian people moving back and forth? To the desert and a lot of people trading things and ceremonies still going on?

Yes, they used to do that a lot, not too much in my time, but I do barely remember. The coast Indian, they take salt and they trade that as far back as they can go way back into the desert out into Borrego and clear beyond that—as far as they can—as far as the Colorado River. And the same way with them, they’ll trade. They’ll trade westward. They come—it don’t have to be very much but they bring something that they might want and need so they got to be pretty well acquainted with one another all the way through, and especially at ceremonial times, just like that last Keruk in the Cuyapaipe, there were more Indians from far-off places than I have ever seen. A lot of Mexican Indians came up.

You mention in this photo that the men would look out to see if there were any rivals out there, or any unfriendly people. Were there certain areas where they went to collect the acorn and to collect food like a territory, or was it wide open? Could you go anywhere you wanted? 

Yes, but they have their certain protectural place they go and then if there are some way outside people coming in, the first thing they do is they go to the head leader or the chief and explain themselves—what they’re here for and they want to get some berries or something if they could be spared. Well, you’re most welcome. What’s ours is yours, but if they find anybody just stealing, why that’s another thing—just going into it. And there have been some bands that used to do that.

I had read in the newspaper that in the 1880s and 1890s the Indians from Jacumba used to come up and do that sometimes. They used to come up and take the acorns from where they weren’t supposed to be and come and do things like that. And there was a lot of animosity. A lot of people arguing about food and things like that in that time period, because they wouldn’t ask the Chief’s permission. There were a lot of problems like that. 

I know when I was a boy I used to get quite a lot of pinyon nuts. Some Indians come there with a flour sack and [would] get it almost full of pinyon nuts that [had been) gathered. Later on I asked how come we don’t get them anymore and they said those people died and it’s hard to get them. Those were Mexican Indians that came over and gave us those and we gave them acorns in return. That’s what they came here for. They had a bad year on acorns but they had a wonderful year on pinyons. There is a big pinyon grove out west of the Guadalupe and they’re down in Mexico here by Laguna Salada. You go through there and then you go up one of those canyons. I don’t know which canyon it is, but I know just a few years ago, my gosh, you can see more remnants of artifacts—broken pottery here and there. I never found anything good. Never had much time, but that country up on top, way over, is where the pinyon grove is. And they’re not over in bad country either, they say it’s kind of a more easy place to get to. So they really harvest. They pick those just about August and the cones are just almost ready to break open. That’s when they get them. They take them and put them out on a big flat rock and let ’em stay there until they dry out and then they open up and they shell them. 

Do you grind them on a mortar?

The Art of Maria Alto

Maria Alto, the mother of Tom Lucas, made hundreds of baskets and pots over the course of her long life. Some of these remain in the personal collection of Tom Lucas, others are in the collection of Calla Morris of ocotillo, and others have been donated to the San Diego Museum of Man and the San Diego Historical Society.

The whimsical looking face on the finely tempered clay olla opposite (top) has slit eyes and mouth and protruding ears and chin-trademarks of Maria Alto’s later decorative pots. The non-traditional urn below it (bottom, left) shows the effects of European contact in the side handles and affixed effigy. Maria Alto often made these for special occasions and as gifts. The tall, broadly smiling urn is also somewhat non-traditional in shape and has a flat bottom characteristic of twentieth century Indian ceramics. The darkened spots on the left side are fire clouds-the result of burning embers leaning against the vessel during firing.

Maria Also was considered one of the finest basket makers among her people. The small, utilitarian basket below does not have the fine weave or intricate designs present on many of her other baskets but is a study in symmetry and use of native fibers including deer grass.

Yes. In trading that way, they travel quite a long ways—long distances.

Where did you go after the Descanso School? Did you come down to San Diego and go to school—the Sherman School?

I’ll tell you what it was. At that time the Indians couldn’t just go to any public school. Well, in the first place, they said, well, you have to have the government’s permission. The government wants all kids to go to government schools. I don’t know, but some say it’s because they get so much allowance—so much more for them to go. But if you go to a regular public school, why that’s just out of the taxpayers and quite a lot of these old-timers don’t want it. But my mother happened to know and have a lot of friends. So she worked around and the school board declared if he’s going to live amongst us by all means he ought to learn something, so they opened it up. They said, “After all, we have a bunch of Mexicans and all that going to school.” So they opened that up and it was oK for me. But, by golly, the first 2 or 3 days were the roughest. But time goes on and after a month or so I just walked my way in there and I just enjoyed and looked forward to it. Later on came some of the happiest days of my life, I guess. I learned a lot of English, etc. I had 8 years of it. Then I spent 1 year in San Diego High. They used to call it the Gray Castle. Well, that was all I could afford, or my folks could, so that was the end of it. It wasn’t bad at that time. I was working as soon as I got out. I had some places where I could work—cleaning out garages and service stations and all that. But that kind of a job started getting rough because they didn’t hire kids later on, it was just grown-up men and all. I couldn’t earn my way no how and the government was no help. They said I’d have to go to their school to get help. I didn’t go to Sherman, I never did.

How did you meet your wife?

Oh, I used to work on the ranch. It was a big cattle ranch at one time and then they turned half of it into a summer resort. It was called the Hulburd’s Grove. My wife came out from the East. She worked there and I worked there and in the evening we usually all would go into the recreation [area] to have dancing and card parties and so forth. And that’s how I happened to meet her. And then she went back east but she didn’t like it back there. The weather was too severe and she didn’t like it. And she got sick—a very sick person with inflammatory rheumatism. She came back out and we got married and that was that

Your grandmother’s name was Kallich?


Was she born right in the same area in the Lagunas?

I believe she was born in the Laguna Mountains. Either Laguna or Mason Valley. But that was her home, in the Laguna Mountains, what they call the Cuyapaipe. Mason Valley was that desert down below—way down, but it’s not too far—probably at the most 10 miles. But the way you have to go, that winding back and forth down there makes just about 30 miles or more of it. That was their winter home. They call that country mea-met’nook and that means Old Peaceful Valley or something that lays quiet and calm. There have never been any violent storms or anything—peaceful.

What does Cuyamaca mean?

Cloud—cloud cover. Cuyamaca—well, you look at it and a lot of times in the wintertime when you see a cloud cap over it, you know. [It’s] just like [when] you’re going up toward Oregon country you look at Mt. Shasta and sometimes you can’t see the mountain at all—there’s no other cloud nowhere in sight. 

Just there.

So that’s what that means—the cloud cover Cuyamaca—”Cuy” means cloud. It’s awful hard to get a letter to describe that properly pronounced in Indian so that comes about as close I guess as they could get it. “Cmaca” means thrown over.

What was your mother’s father’s first name?

Adolph—I don’t know what the Indian name was, but he must have had it.

Was he a chief or a captain of the tribe up in the mountains?

No, no he wasn’t.

Did you ever hear any stories about a man called Manuel Cota when you were growing up? He was a chief of the Luiseños for many years in the 1870s.

I think that’s further over to the north of us. (That really run in that Mesa Grande if they call it that, Indians.) [It] later became known as the Mesa Grande. Well, he was quite a known chief or leader of that.

There was another fellow named Olegario. I was reading in the newspapers that he and Manuel Cota used to argue—one would be the captain one time and the other another time. They were rivals for the position, I think.”11

Yes, I’ve heard of them.

Do you remember who was the chief or captain of the Indians when you were growing up? Was there one man besides Captain Valentine or Chief Valentine?

Chief Valentine—he was the last of it.12 The very last. After he was gone Juan Baptiste—that was his brother that was left. They wanted to give him the range but the people started going. Some of them died and some left and he declined to take it. Well, there was nobody left and, besides, he said I’d just rather help, if anybody needs help, but being a chief and being looked upon, he didn’t want that. But he said, “I’ll help [with] what I can.” Strangely enough, after he made his comment on all that, his brother died—all of them just died off one by one—and left only a very few of his relatives. They moved over to Santa Ysabel and they merged with those people over there and they don’t ever want to go back anymore. That was the end of that. This Juan Baptiste, he lived there until 1918—he and his wife. His wife was a Nejo Indian and I had a picture showing. The Nejo comes from the San Felipe. The San Felipe like Banner Grade. There was a whole Indian tribe in there and she came from that country. She was one of the last. So,strange enough, the two of them died 2 days apart. So that finished that off.

Did some of the Indians work in the mine, or did they just hunt for the mines to get them food? Did any of the Indians work right in the mine itself ?

Oh, yes. They worked quite a bit. These used to be quite a bit mined like the Noble Mines that produced heavily but for a very short span of time. It was no chance for no stampede or nothing. It seemed like they made it [work].And the Stonewall Mines. But there was a lot of Indians that used to go there and get work just outside of the mines, cutting wood for camps, cutting wood for the steam-powered engines and the same way in Julian and Banner. All those they used to work out quite a bit. 

Your mother wasn’t related to Gertrude Alto, was she? Was that a different family? Gertrude and Gabriel, was that a different family?

My mother’s dad, they called him the Alto. It’s a Spanish name and they told him he was from the Kwaaymii band. Of course, in the Spanish they have to give their own name, so Alto means tall. And so for a long time they gave her that name and she carried that name all the way through. Even after they were married—they don’t change their name, they just keep their own name. There was nothing to fall heir to, [no] such things as  lawsuits. Alimony was not known at all amongst Indians. If they disagree they don’t want nothing that the other man had. Just take all your stuff and get out. They don’t want to be bothered, much less a name.

 We were going to try to find some of the baskets and pottery that your mother and grandmother had made. Do you know of any museums they went to? Was it the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles?

Yeah, and I believe so—and when I go up there I’m going to look over -I’m just going to make it a point. I’m going to do it before too long, too. [DAUGHTER: He said they’re going to try and find some of those things.] I was going to try and find it this time when I go up. I usually go up and I don’t do nothing and I come back. My daughter moved away from there now, so if I go I just stay in a motel, and that way the next day I light right out and go to the museum and I just like to spend—oh, sometimes I spend days.

[DAUGHTER: Would there be any other museums that the things might be in?]

I don’t know, I’d have to look whether the one down where the old exposition park was.

Did she ever do any for Malcolm Rogers at the Museum of Man?

I think so, there’s quite a bit of it. Some way Malcolm Rogers and Donal Hord were pretty close together. They were very, very close. And a lot of things that were my mother’s I gave to .Donald Hord and then I got to know Malcolm pretty well. I’ve got one of his books here—the big one that he wrote.

Oh, “Ancient Hunters of the Far West.” That’s a good book.

[DAUGHTER: Speaking of that—a picture of my father’s grandmother turned up in the Indian Center Take Ten Newspaper that they publish and they got the picture from the Museum of Man. So there must be some things there.]

I’ll check on that.

[DAUGHTER: They didn’t have a name, they didn’t know who it was.]

I haven’t seen that publication. Who puts it out?

[DAUGHTER: There is an organization for the Indians. It’s the Indian Center downtown on Sixth Avenue. They have a lot of programs for Indians and whatnot. And they publish a paper for the Indians every month—a small paper. You ought to drop by there because they do have quite a few activities and different Indians from all over.]

I’ll check with the Museum of Man. They must have pictures and things. We’re trying to find things that his mother and grandmother made and get names and dates on them.13

[DAUGHTER: Hopefully, they’re not lost, like the pictures that nobody knows who they are. That’s how I came to find -when all this happened and I saw my grandmother. ]

What I’m going to do is do some research on your family and then come back sometime to talk with you again. Can I come in sometime and photograph the pots and the sandals? Things like that you don’t find anymore.

[DAUGHTER: Daddy, he wants to know if he can come back and photograph the ollas and sandals and talk with you again.] Yes. I was going to take and fix another pair like it. The fiber I got at the wrong time of the year, but I have to get some. I’ll save those out.

What’s the best time of the year to get the century plant fiber?

Just before they start dying out. They pick out the part that is just beginning to mature good and dying off, that’s really the best of it. But some of that is too dry to be good either. I was trying to look them over and to make a copy.

The leaves of the plant—do you just strip them back to make the fiber or do you have to pound them? How do you process them? 

Put the leaves in water and when they are pretty well soaked up, why you pound them lightly with a smooth rock and keep turning. Then they dry it out until it’s good and dry and then they hit it with the stick and that gets rid of all that white stuff that’s in there and then it just leaves the fiber. Then with that fiber you take and weave that in—weave that in and around and make things. 


As the editor of this interview I owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Lucas himself and his daughter Jackie. Both were patient with my sometimes less-than-educated probing and were always ready to answer yet another question. Sylvia Arden was of course responsible for making the initial contact with Mr. Lucas and also for gently prodding me over the last seven years about “that Lucas article.” For providing me with some of my most basic ethno-historical tools and the sense of historical discovery, I sincerely thank Dr. Paul H. Ezell, Professor Emeritus, San Diego State University. Isabel Tinkham prepared the original transcript from the tape, a task requiring patience and tenacity.



1. In particular, refer to Ken Hedges, “Notes on the Kumeyaay: A Problem of Identification,” Journal of California Anthropology, 2:1 pp. 71-83; Margaret Langdon, “Kamia and Kumeyaay: A Linguistic Perspective,” Journal of California Anthropology, 2:1 pp. 64-70. The older, and once traditional, terminology is presented in Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California (Berkeley: California Book Company, 1970), pp. 709-711. This classic study originally appeared as Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78, went through several reprints by California Book Company and has recently been reprinted in soft cover by Dover Books.

2. Scholarly examples of the current use and definition of Ipai and Tipai include Katherine Luomala, “Tipai and Ipai,” Handbook of North American Indians: California, Volume 8 (Smithsonian Institution: Washington, 1978), pp. 592-609.

3. Albert H. Schroeder, “The Hohokam, Sinagua and the Hakataya,” Imperial Valley College Museum Occasional Paper No. 3; Paul G. Chace, “An Archaeological Survey of the Fuquay Ranch, Evidence of Hakatayan Traditional Land Use in the Southern California Peninsular Range, San Diego County,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, 18:1.

4. The La Laguna Indian Reservation was established by Executive Order in 1893. The reservation encompassed a prehistoric/historic period village complex, the ancient home of Tom Lucas’ ancestors. In 1944-1946, the reservation was the topic of a court battle between Tom Lucas, who applied for sole ownership of the land, and other local Kumeyaay including a venerated elder, Romuldo LaChappa. Through the efforts of Representative Charles K. Fletcher, Lucas was awarded 320 acres under Public Law 335 which was signed by President Harry S. Truman.

5. Several scholarly works on local native ceramic technology have been published. These include the classic study by Malcolm J. Rogers “Yuman Pottery Making,” San Diego Museum Papers No. 7; a recent work dealing with more of an archaeological interpretation is Ronald V. May, “A Southern California Indigenous Ceramic Typology: A Contribution to Malcolm J. Rogers’ Research,” Journal of the Archaeological Survey Association of Southern California, 2:2, pp. 1-33. A work of a somewhat technique-orientation can be found in Gena Van Camp, “Kumeyaay Pottery,” Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 15.

6. The Kumeyaay are well known for their finely woven and elaborately decorated basketry. Documentation of this ancient craft includes Kroeber, Handbook, p. 722; George Wharton James, Indian Basketry (Dover Publications: New York, 1972); Leslie Spier, “Southern Diegueño Customs,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 20:16.

7. Some of the villages include, Teshill, liahkaay, Kwaaymii, kwatatl and Wiiapaayp (Cuyapaipe). Refer to Lora L. Cline, “The Kwaaymii: Reflections of a Lost Culture,” Imperial Valley College Museum Occasional Paper No. 5, for a more detailed discussion of these settlements. Archaeological remnants of the village at Wiiapaayp were encountered during a recent archaeological study of the entire Cuyapaipe Reservation. See Clifford V. F. Taylor and Richard L. Carrico, “Cultural Resource Survey and Assessment of the Cuyapaipe Indian Reservation, San Diego County California,” United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, Riverside, California, 1981.

8. As with most of California, land was usually set aside for Indians after Anglo-American settlers had dispossessed the natives from the well-watered and prime homesteads. Beginning in late 1875, reservations were established in San Diego County although Campo was not established until 1910. Brief histories of the reservations and their establishment can be found in Florence Shipek, ” History of Southern California Mission Indians,” Handbook ,pp.610-618 and in Richard L. Carrico, “Native Americans in American San Diego: 1850-1880, ” Masters thesis, San Diego State University, 1981.

9. Various histories and versions of the McCain-Campo conflict have been written. Contemporary accounts include San Diego Union, February 28, 1880-March 2, 1880. Recent works present a less biased view, see Peter Odens, The Desert’s Edge (Border-Mountain Press: Benson, Arizona, 1977), pp. 97-100.

10. The keruk, or karuk, ceremony was an important rite in Kumeyaay life and death cycles. The ceremony mentioned by Lucas was the last recorded keruk until a recent ceremony was conducted at Cuyapaipe. The keruk is described in Kroeber, Handbook, pp. 716-717; Cline, “The Kwaaymii,” pp. 81-83; Spier, ” Customs,” and in other ethnographic studies.

11. The nature of evolving Native American leadership roles in response to European contact is discussed in George Phillips, Chiefs and Challengers (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1975). An analysis of the rivalry between the two strong leaders, Olegario and Manuel Cota, can be found in Richard Carrico, “The Struggle for Native American Determination in San Diego County,” journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, 2:2, pp. 199-213.

12. Chief Valentine was born about 1800 and died in July 1899. Valentine was a wellrespected, intelligent man who was considered a friend of local ranchers including John Y. Beyers of Descanso. Beyers is posed with Valentine in the photograph that accompanies this article.

13. A search of both the Museum of Man and San Diego History Center’s artifact collections led to a pleasant surprise. Ken Hedges of the Museum of Man located and allowed Ken Jacques to photograph ceramic vases manufactured by Tom Lucas’ mother Maria Alto who was also known as Mary Sessario (Cesario). With the aid of Bruce Kamerling of the San Diego History Center, a vase that was in their collection was also identified as a Maria Alto product. According to Cline, “The Kwaaymii, ” pp. 32-42, other vessels by Maria Alto are in the collections of Calla Morris, Ocotillo, California.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS of Maria Alto’s pottery and basketry on pages 132 and 133 are courtesy of Ken Jacques, the San Diego Museum of Man and the San Diego Historical Society. All others are from the Tom Lucas Collection, San Diego Historical Society. Maps were provided by the author.